Unconventional Paths: Bohemian wannabe turned Stanford nutritionist

Unconventional Paths: Stories of Stanford Medicine faculty, doctors and physicians whose journeys into medicine followed nontraditional routes.

When Christopher Gardner, PhD, graduated from college with a philosophy degree, he had three things on his mind: Skiing in Colorado, surfing in the Pacific Ocean and biking around Europe.

Whether these things might help him discover his purpose in life was unclear, but Gardner knew one thing for sure — he didn’t want to settle down in a conventional job.

“I watched a bunch of my friends, who had been outgoing collegiate people, all sign up to sell paper towels or join companies that would give them boring, stable jobs,” Gardner said. “I was actually quite distressed that they were picking that.”

In between skiing in Vail, Colorado, and surfing in Santa Barbara, California, he returned home to Hanover, New Hampshire, and met a girl, who eventually became his girlfriend, while working at a restaurant. Eventually, she moved to California, where Gardner planned to join her after saving up some money. But just after he quit his restaurant job, she dumped him.

He was hopeful that the reason she called it off because she was a vegetarian, and he wasn’t. So, he tried one last thing. He told her: “For you? I’m going to go vegetarian.”

He came to California to try to work things out, but his all-veg-no-meat gesture didn’t save the relationship. It did, however, start him down a path that has since evolved into a career at Stanford Medicine as a professor and director of nutrition studies at the Stanford Prevention Research Center. During this time, Gardner has published numerous studies on the health benefits (or lack thereof) of various dietary components, including soy foods, garlic and omega-3 fats.

So how did a meandering philosophy major end up studying food sustainability and nutrition?

The power of nutrition

When Gardner first moved to California, he didn’t know that perhaps one of his most significant findings would be that changing individuals’ eating patterns and behaviors is very difficult. Helping people get the nutrition they need, however, has made the process worth it.

“We have broken food systems,” said Gardner. “My long-term vision is to help address that.”

Once Gardner was on the West Coast, he decided he might as well stay. But where to settle? He looked for a town with specific qualifications: a lacrosse team, an ice hockey rink, a food coop and a university. And that’s how he found Santa Barbara.

He became assistant produce manager at the local food coop and began learning more about what it meant live on a vegetarian diet. There was one thing that irked him though: Inevitably, when he told people he was a vegetarian, they would ask, “But where do you get your protein?”

“I was really sick of answering that question!” Gardner said. “So I decided to get a master’s degree in nutrition so I would have an articulate response.”

After moving up to Northern California and completing his prerequisite science classes at UC Davis in 1988, Gardner applied to a nutrition master’s program at UC Berkeley. But, to Gardner’s surprise, the administrators, who saw the A’s and A + ‘s on his transcript, suggested Gardner pursue a PhD in nutrition science instead.

While earning his PhD, Gardner wasn’t interested in studying rats and cells and nutritional mechanisms. So he focused his dissertation on how dietary changes of Hispanic men in the Mission District of San Francisco impacted their cardiovascular risk factors after they immigrated from Mexico or Central America. He found that after migrating to California, participants reported eating more prepared foods that were high in fat and sugar and eating less lard, margarine, cheese, fish, pork and poultry skin.

After graduating in 1993, without a clear plan for how to use his degree, Gardner attended a symposium at Stanford Medicine where he met Marcia Stefanick, PhD, professor of medicine, and a member of the faculty of the prevention research center. She encouraged him to apply to a postdoctoral research fellowship at the center that was funded by the National Institutes for Health.

Gardner applied for and got the position that year and for the next four years, he researched cardiovascular disease prevention. Specifically, he used data collected through a massive field study — called the Stanford Five-City Project — on community health education from five California cities to observe things like where in their diet Hispanic, Black and white populations get their folic acid, or vitamin B9.

“The researchers at the Stanford Prevention Research Center were great mentors and taught me how to ask answerable questions more effectively than I had learned during my graduate training,” said Gardner.

Changing eating behaviors

Almost 30 years later, Gardner’s focus at the center has shifted from the observational studies that he pursued as a postdoc to research that helps people alter their eating patterns.

One of his priorities is something he calls “stealth nutrition” — the idea that making impactful dietary improvements in populations means adding non-health related approaches to public health professionals’ toolbox. That might be showing people connections between food and climate change, animal welfare or and human labor abuses. The goal is to change individuals’ — particularly young adults’ — beliefs about the foods that they are eating.

“This is another way of thinking about behavior change,” said Gardner, who teaches an undergraduate class called Food and Society, offered through the Stanford Program in Human Biology, that focuses on stealth nutrition. “Avoid talking about just health — like milligrams of antioxidants and grams of fiber — and focus on topics like social responsibility, which is more meaningful to many young adults.”

It may seem like studying philosophy in college was a false start, but Gardner feels his work has come full circle. “Wrestling with successful dietary behavior change that targets the intersection of human and environmental health often requires a philosophical lens that goes beyond a standard health science skill set,” he said.

Along with researching and teaching, Gardner also works with universities, worksites, hospitals and schools to find ways to make food healthy and delicious. In 2015, he joined several colleagues to initiate a collaboration between Stanford and the Culinary Institute of America. This work now involves more than 60 universities that have agreed to use their dining halls as

living laboratories to study the best ways to combine taste, health and environmental stability.

“I’ve had to shift and pivot to find ways to make real change. But making an impact is the most invigorating part of my job, so it’s always worth it,” said Gardner. “And it all began with a philosophy major and getting dumped by my vegetarian girlfriend.”

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